Not the Same Lent: Four Ways to Engage Teenagers in the Lenten Season
I dreaded Lent, and sometimes I still do. As a kid, my concerns were the Friday fish dinners composed of soggy fish sticks and mashed potatoes and the unbearably long liturgies or Triduum that I knew stood between me and my Easter basket. As I got older, I questioned the idea of fasting (I mean, how “small” are we talking as far as a meal goes?) and usually was able to fast from something for about nine days before failing miserably. As a mature Catholic adult, I still find myself in some ways dreading the season. Don’t get judgmental – you probably dread it in some ways, too.
Yet, there was something about Lent that I find myself drawn to every year. Dare I say it is magical? There is an allure of the desert spirituality of Lent that I can’t shake. The ashes we put on our foreheads are looked at with a strange curiosity by the world around us and the idea of sacrifice, dying, and rising are themes that speak to the core of the human experience. I am never surprised that the idea of Lent is something that seems to resonate with non-Catholics.
As much as we may find some of these compelling themes in Lent, the teenagers we serve may differ. We take for granted the gap between curiosity about these unique practices and understanding them, let alone incorporating them into our spirituality. For teenagers – especially this year – Lent is an important season. We can help them enter into it profoundly with four simple steps:
- Shift the Mindset. Many people approach Lent with the mindset that they are going to “do something for God.” We look at fasting, prayer, and almsgiving as practices that will make God happy and, though we might not say it, earn us a reward. As you walk with teenagers through Lent, especially in the days leading up to it, remind them that Lent is about a work God wants to do in us, not about what we might do for God. The reason we fast, pray, and give is so we can open ourselves up to the work God is doing for us and wants to do for us. This subtle mindset changes the entire attitude that underpins Lent.
- Group Fasting. Adopt a fast you will undertake as a group. This works especially well for small groups. Remind the teens that fasting is about giving up something that is good, not a sinful habit (we should be giving up sinful habits anyway, not just in Lent). Pick a fasting practice you can do together. This will help you support each other, build community, and give you discussion topics for how the fast is spiritually benefiting each member of the group uniquely.
- Walk the Season. Your programming, curriculum, and parish engagement should look different during Lent. If your Life Night topics, small group sessions, and other youth engagement opportunities look the same as they did in Ordinary Time, you are missing an opportunity. Make sure you’re scheduling youth ministry curriculum to include topics about fasting, penance, reconciliation, Lent, and Jesus’ Passion, death, and Resurrection. Yes, you may cover those things every year, but there is a reason why we do Lent every year – we can be quick to forget. Lent is an amazing time to engage the rest of your parish life, as well. Bring your teens to Ash Wednesday services together, go to your parish Stations of the Cross or penance service. Commit to going to all the Triduum liturgies (even the long ones). Those opportunities help your teens engage in the season while walking with the rest of your parish.
- Get Devotional. Any journey is enhanced with a guide. Purchase some devotional materials for Lents for your teens. A devotional is great for individuals and can provide a solid foundation for a small group during Lent (plus that change of pace programming we talked about above). There are a variety of resources you can use during Lent, many geared toward teenagers. If you are looking for a solid starting place, check out our stations of the cross resources, “Via: Finding Hope in the Stations of the Cross,” and “Come Walk: A Teen Guide to Stations of the Cross.” You can also get a digital copy of our 2021 Life Teen Lent Companion on Kindle.
Your teens may love Lent or loathe Lent, but chances are good that many are unsure of how to even enter into Lent. This year, you can help them dive in and see that the season is more than soggy fish frys and failing at your fast nine days into the season. This year you can help teens walk the desert and be transformed in the cross of Christ in a profound and new way.